ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Researchers at the University of Rochester in New York are using fetal cells to create a “supermouse” with a half-human brain in order to study human diseases of the brain and find cures for those ailments.
The research, which is now raising ethical questions, involves injecting cells from unborn babies into the brain tissue of baby mice.
“Researchers took the immature glial cells from donated human fetuses and injected them into mouse pups,” the New Scientist reports. “The cells developed into star-shaped glial cells known as astrocytes. 300,000 human cells were injected into each mouse, but 12 months later that number had increased to 12 million. The mouse’s own glial cells had been driven out by human astrocytes which are up to 20 times larger than those in mice.”
It is not known whether the “donated human fetuses” had been aborted or miscarried.
The injection resulted in the creation of smarter mice as compared to ordinary lab mice as the cells assist with memory retention. Scientists compared the outcome to “ramping up” the memory of one’s computer.
“We can say they were statistically and significantly smarter than control mice,” Steven Goldman, professor of neurology at the university, told the publication.
Scientists also discovered that when the baby glial cells were injected into some baby mice that were deficient at producing myelin, some of the human cells developed into oligodendrocytes, which help to produce myelin. The university said that this discovery may be used to help treat those diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and are moving ahead with further tests to begin treating humans with the cells.
But researchers are insistent that although the infusion of the human cells produced positive effects and increased the intelligence of the rodents, the mice are still mice, and have no characteristics that would distinguish them as behaving human.
“It’s still a mouse brain, not a human brain,” Goldman said. “But all the non-neuronal cells are human.”
Lab rats are also being used for the experiment, but scientists state that they had to draw the line at rodents as they once had considered using monkeys for the research and decided against it due to ethical concerns.
But in his blog Open the Future, writer Jamais Cascio states that he is nonetheless concerned about where such research may lead.
“I’m mostly interested in the ‘what happens next?’ question,” he wrote. “It’s likely that rats with hGPC will show increased intelligence; same with dogs. And just because this set of researchers won’t add the hGPC special sauce to monkeys doesn’t mean that somebody else won’t do it. And maybe even throw in a few neuron precursors for flavor.”
“But even sticking with hGPCs, the fact remains: we’re making these non-human animals demonstrably smarter,” Cascio continued. “What rights should any of these types of uplifted animals have? Do we need to spell out a greater set of rights for the human chimera mice in the news report? … At what point would it become a crime to kill them, no matter how humanely or in accordance with ethical standards?”